A Dishonorable Killing

A Dishonorable Killing

Joe Kahahawai has been called Hawaii’s Emmett Till. But unlike Till, Kahahawai’s death more than 70 years ago has never made the history books.

By Lydia Lum  

The brutal slaying in 1955 of Emmett Till by at least two White Southerners shocked and outraged the country. Published photos of the Black teenager’s mutilated body on the covers of Jet and The Chicago Defender galvanized the civil rights movement, especially in the South. 

A sadly similar crime in Hawaii 23 years earlier also led residents of that state to unite and demand social change. Like Till, 22-year-old Joe Kahahawai was murdered by angry Whites. But there is at least one stark difference between the two cases. Till’s story has been seared into the American consciousness. It is recorded in the history books.

Kahahawai’s story, meanwhile, is almost universally absent from textbooks in this country. His name isn’t even familiar to most history faculty outside Hawaii, much less to the general public.

“It’s a shame, too, because stories like this one have a lasting impact by opening up our understanding of race, class and gender issues,” says Dr. Kevin Boyle, an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University. Boyle, who has studied and taught at various institutions in the Midwest and on the East Coast, first learned of Kahahawai in the late 1990s from a Hawaiian graduate student whose work he supervised at the University of Massachusetts.

Last year, Dr. David Stannard, a University of Hawaii American studies professor, published Honor Killing, a book detailing the events and historical circumstances surrounding Kahahawai’s death. Stannard, who also has taught at Yale and Stanford universities, as well as the University of Colorado, has never seen mention of Kahahawai in any history text outside Hawaii. Yet the murder generated such a media storm during the first half of 1932 that The New York Times ran almost 200 stories about it, he says.

While doing research for the book, Stannard was able to find local residents who were willing to describe day-to-day life and the political and social climate of that time. But more often than not, their accounts were given anonymously, reflecting the sense of privacy important among the community. It also reflects a cultural value common among Asian Pacific Islanders that emphasizes silent acceptance of the status quo over aggressive calls for change. Both traits perhaps help explain why Kahahawai’s name rings few, if any, bells on the mainland.

Stannard and Boyle say Kahahawai’s slaying doesn’t fit into most Americans’ image of Hawaii — a picturesque tourist haven with exotic hula dancers at every turn. They say the main reason Americans know the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 is that the event propelled the country into World War II.

The elements of Kahahawai’s case illuminated the sharp racial divide of the time: a White woman’s uncorroborated accusation that she was raped by non-White men, a vigilante kidnapping, a murder and two sensational trials that drew worldwide media attention. In fact, the second trial marked the end of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow’s career.

Stark Parallels
In September of 1931, 20-year-old Thalia Massie accused Kahahawai and four other young men — two Japanese, one Hawaiian and one Hawaiian-Chinese — of kidnapping her while she was walking at night, stuffing her into a car and gang-raping her. Massie, a distant relative of President Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell, had moved to Honolulu with her Navy officer husband, Lt. Tommie Massie, for his submarine squadron assignment. At the time, Hawaii was an annexed U.S. territory with a governor appointed by the president. Life for native Hawaiians at the time was similar to life for Blacks in the South: poverty, marginalization and disrespect on a daily basis.

Massie’s accusations were inconsistent from the beginning. She insisted that her attackers were Hawaiian, not Asian, but was initially unable to describe them individually. She eventually identified the license plate number of a car belonging to one of the suspects, although many historians suspect the number was provided by a police officer in the station. Meanwhile, the five men she accused were being questioned in connection with an assault on a Hawaiian woman that same night. Kahahawai admitted he and the Hawaiian woman got into a shoving match that night, stemming from road rage after a near automobile collision at an intersection. The five men denied Massie’s allegations, however, and doctors found no medical evidence of rape. But as Massie’s accusations got more media attention, racial tensions on the island grew.

The November rape trial resulted in a hung jury, enraging Whites both on the island and the mainland who had demanded swift convictions

and long prison terms. White sailors on the island wanted to teach the natives “a lesson.” Soon after the mistrial, a carload of sailors kidnapped one of the defendants, beating him severely with leather belts and metal buckles. Meanwhile, Tommie Massie, his mother-
in-law, Grace Fortescue, and two enlisted Navy men hatched a plan to get Kahahawai alone, threaten him with violence and force him into a written confession. Two months after the trial, they picked him up as he left a meeting with his probation officer. Kahahawai’s cousin — who’d accompanied him to the meeting and feared a kidnapping — immediately reported that Kahahawai got into a strange car. Authorities eventually spotted Massie and the sedan heading towards the ocean. In the back seat was Kahahawai’s naked body, shot once in the heart and wrapped in a bloody bed sheet. His bloodstains and clothing remnants were found at Fortescue’s house. Massie was going to the ocean to dump the body. Navy officials balked at placing the suspects in prison, instead sequestering the four in a decommissioned ship at Pearl Harbor, with hotel-like space and amenities.

The murder threw Hawaii into turmoil. Kahahawai’s funeral drew thousands of Hawaiians and initiated a previously rare cooperative strategy session between leaders of the Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and Hawaiian communities. American soldiers and sailors were confined to their posts, and commanding officers were advised to avoid Honolulu for fear of civilian retaliation.

Hawaii’s Trial of the Century
Mainland newspapers defended the murder, saying Fortescue and Tommie Massie had appropriately taken matters into their own hands. Darrow was hired to lead the defense, earning his highest fee ever and adding to the media circus. Journalists came from as far away as London to cover the trial. Prosecutors argued the shooting was premeditated and done in cold blood. Because the gun wasn’t recovered, Darrow claimed Tommie Massie, struggling with the humiliation of failing to protect his wife from rape, shot Kahahawai in a moment of insanity and deep distress.

It was, Darrow declared, an honor killing. 

In researching his book, Stannard discovered the Black American press considered Kahahawai’s death a racially motivated hate crime.
 “They saw it as a lynching. If there was one group that could be counted on to be pro-Hawaiian throughout the entire episode, it was the Black press,” Stannard says.  

The jury in the case faced enormous pressure to return a not-guilty verdict. The U.S. Congress had openly warned that a conviction would almost certainly hurt Hawaii’s hopes of statehood. Regardless, the four Whites were found guilty of manslaughter. The decision prompted Congress to immediately petition President Herbert Hoover for a pardon. At the time, the law called for the defendants to each serve 10 years in prison. But Gov. Lawrence McCully Judd, bowing to the intense political pressure, commuted the prison terms to one hour in his office. Journalists photographed the triumphant four that day on the lanai of the governor’s palace.

Soon, the defendants, along with Thalia Massie, left Hawaii amid much fanfare. Locals in Hawaii, meanwhile, were outraged. Even prominent Whites began criticizing the arrogance of the White oligarchy. Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino and Chinese leaders continued to meet and find common ground. Interracial solidarity grew among the various people of color, who had been pitted against each other for decades by White plantation owners. That newfound unity would manifest itself in the 1932 elections, when more than 90 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls and swept into office an unprecedented number of Democrats and Asians.

The rape charges against the other four young men were eventually dropped. An independent detective agency later concluded that they, along with Kahahawai, could not have committed the crime, and that Massie hadn’t been raped that night at all. But the four surviving men never escaped the stigma of the so-called “Massie Affair.” Slanderous stories dogged their children and even prompted some members of Kahahawai’s family to change their surname. Even well after his death, Kahahawai’s name continued to be vilified by many of Hawaii’s White residents.

That wasn’t the case for 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till. In 1955, the Chicago native, who had traveled to Money, Miss., to visit his grandfather and relatives, whistled at Carolyn Bryant in the grocery store she owned with her husband, Roy. Three days later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, drove to Till’s grandfather’s house, stormed inside and forced Till into their truck at gunpoint. Some accounts say a woman in the truck, presumably Carolyn Bryant, identified Till as the person who’d whistled. Till’s body was found several days later in the Tallahatchie River. He had been brutally beaten, an ear was cut off, an eye was detached, and he had been shot in the face. Before throwing him into the river, Till’s murderers tied a
75-pound cotton gin fan around his neck, weighing him down. The subsequent trial lasted five days. The jury of 12 White men deliberated for 67 minutes before acquitting Roy Bryant and Milam. One of the jurors would later say the deliberations, which included a break for soda, were “just for show.” The acquittals sparked national and global outrage, which only increased four months later when Milam admitted to the kidnapping and killing, knowing double jeopardy laws would keep him from facing prosecution.

The Kahahawai case is also similar to that of the Scottsboro boys. In 1931, two White women aboard a freight train accused nine Black teenagers of rape when the train stopped in a small town in Alabama. This also sparked one of the most significant legal fights of the 20th century, dividing Americans among racial, political and geographic lines. The teenagers would be tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Ultimately, the women confessed that they had not been raped, but the young men would be tied up in litigation for years, some still serving prison sentences.

In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department re-opened the Till investigation to determine if anyone still alive should face charges. In November, the FBI said it had completed its investigation into Till’s death and was expected to turn over its report to Joyce Chiles, the district attorney in Greenville, Miss. Chiles has said she will decide whether to have a grand jury consider indictments.

There is no chance of additional justice for Kahahawai, however. His case is closed and nearly forgotten, and the defendants are all deceased. And unlike Till’s case, Stannard says there’s never been any talk about re-opening or revisiting the Kahahawai case.



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